Donald the Dybbuk and the Phantom Troll-booth

Wouldn’t we all benefit by returning to our true selves and core principles, freeing ourselves of the White House’s orange-haired gremlin?

President Donald Trump speaks as he welcomes Paraguay s President Mario Abdo Benitez to the White House in the Oval Office on December 13, 2019 in Washington, D.C. (photo credit: STHANLEE B. MIRADOR/SIPA USA/TNS)
President Donald Trump speaks as he welcomes Paraguay s President Mario Abdo Benitez to the White House in the Oval Office on December 13, 2019 in Washington, D.C.
Like some dybbuk, Donald Trump haunts the Jewish psyche. We give him too much power to wreak havoc in our minds, stirring personal and communal demons.  He’s gotten many Jewish conservatives, who love his Israel policies, to excuse his many other despicable behaviors. And he’s gotten Jewish liberals, who hate everything about him, to say, if he wants an embassy in Jerusalem, I don’t; if he opposes campus antisemitism, I won’t; and if The New York Times mistakenly suggests that he proclaimed Judaism as a nation, I’ll declare it just a religion.
Wouldn’t we all benefit by returning to our true selves and core principles, freeing ourselves of the White House’s orange-haired gremlin?
Right-wingers are right; Trump is a pro-Israel Santa Claus, working his way down the Zionist wish list. I, too, appreciate a president who finally recognizes the obvious: that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital; that bankrolling Palestinians, empowering Iran, and tolerating campus antisemitism feed the ideological war against the Jews, dooming peace efforts.
But gratitude for these Middle East goodies cannot excuse Trump’s compulsive bullying, belittling, bigotry, vulgarity, divisiveness, spitefulness, libels and lies, besmirching much that is sacred in America.
As someone who instinctively agrees with conservatives fighting the broader cultural war to defend traditional morality, I feel betrayed that few can sift ethically, saying “Thanks for this – but not at all for that.” That this tribal hypocrisy has many Israeli rabbis and supposed moralists enabling Bibi Netanyahu’s corruption compounds my disappointment.
Politics shouldn’t be an all-or-nothing sport. In the 1990s, I condemned Bill Clinton’s compulsive lying and philandering while saluting his centrism. Today, I hail Trump’s support for Israel while repudiating his crudeness and corruption. We need to decide whether character is relevant or not in leaders. But weaponizing character only against partisan rivals makes morality a farce.
ALAS, HYPOCRISY and idiocy have gone bipartisan. The mainstream media conversation about Jewish issues this week was thoroughly shameful – further proving we need a Zionist think tank.
A New York Times column, purporting to interpret Trump’s campus antisemitism executive order, defined nationalism solely in Trumpian terms as turning “minorities and migrants into second-class citizens” and producing nations “irrevocably divided from one another by race and heritage.” What about America’s expansive, welcoming, noble, even if yet unfulfilled “E pluribus unum” aspirations to make “out of many, one” nation? The columnist quoted only one expert, Ernest Gellner, a smart but harsh critic of nationalism. That’s like assessing Barack Obama by quoting only Trump.
The “interpreter” then misinterpreted, predictably, claiming: “The Israeli national narrative... implies a Jewish identity that is innately ethnic and national,” negating Rav Kook and every religious Zionist. He also alleged, equally falsely, that “more recent Israeli leaders have promoted Israeli identity as exclusively Jewish.” Some have, but what about a pro-settler, right-winger like President Reuven Rivlin, among many others, who embraces Israeli Arabs as an equal “Fourth Tribe,” partnering with secular, religious and ultra-Orthodox Jews (the Fifth Tribe is Diaspora Jews).
Even dumber – and that’s why I’m not using names – The Washington Post ran a prominent Jewish historian’s op-ed with a subhead claiming: “When Jewishness has been defined as a nationality or race, it has enabled persecution.” That meant that Trump’s executive order “in the name of protecting Jews from antisemitism” might “lay the groundwork for a much more serious antisemitic threat.”  Victim-blaming-much?
That column also asserted, misleadingly, that “the vast majority” of American Jews “do not see themselves as a separate nationality or a race.” Beware academic sleight of hand. He made his case by sidestepping the communal word American Jews embrace proudly, “peoplehood.”
The mudslide of malicious mistakenness included a New York Times editorial claiming: “Last year, antisemitic attacks killed more Jews around the globe than in any year in decades.” What about Islamist and Palestinian antisemitism responsible for murdering hundreds of Jews in recent years? Apparently, Arab-generated Jew-hatred isn’t antisemitic or personal, “merely” reasonable anti-Occupation protests and occasionally “anti-Zionist.”
The “larger threat to American Jews goes beyond college students sparring over Israeli policy,” the Times proclaimed. “Violent antisemitism is being fomented most significantly by white nationalists and the far Right.”
I’m sure that comforts my students bullied on campus, ultra-Orthodox Jews battered in Brooklyn, and the families of hundreds of Jews and non-Jews murdered by Palestinian terrorism or other nonwhite nationalists, including in Jersey City.
Asking “What’s worse: right-wing or left-wing antisemitism?” may be today’s most intellectually reprehensible public debate – no, dying of kidney cancer isn’t so bad, pancreatic is worse. Hatred is hatred. Jew-hatred is antisemitism. Blaming the haters in the camp you hate gets you nowhere. Fight your natural allies first.
Otherwise, we’re all just driving through Phantom Troll-booths, moving principles around for partisan reasons, undermining the fight against antisemitism by targeting favorite political enemies, not all Jew-haters.
Just as we shouldn’t redefine Jew-hatred to advance partisan agendas, we shouldn’t redefine Judaism to please Jew-haters. In “The anomalies of Jewish political identity,” Michael Walzer, the legendary philosopher and Progressive Zionist, acknowledges that Judaism’s nationality-religion mélange confuses some. Most Jews see themselves as belonging to “a people, a nation,” and a faith community, too, whether they’re believers or not. That’s why Jews are irreligious and Orthodox; Zionists are religious and secular.
Some call that the Oreo cookie – Judaism sandwiches nation and religion together. Others call it annoying.
Walzer calls it, correctly, unapologetically, Judaism – and he won’t let any Donald-dybbuk he hates or false anti-Israel Progressive friends he otherwise might like redefine it.
The writer is the author of The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology, The Zionist Idea. A distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, he is the author of 10 books on American history, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.